Monday, April 8, 2019


Everyone knows that this election is a game-changer. It is becoming clear that it is a convention-breaker as well. Things that were no-no in electioneering are now accepted norms. Things to which T.N.Seshan said "out" are now "in". The founding fathers of America said that, even at its best, governments were a necessary evil. Ditto with post-Seshan elections.

That a judicial ruling should contribute to this feeling is disturbing. Bangalore city civil court issued a blanket order banning 49 media outlets from publishing anything "defamatory" against BJP candidate Tejaswi Surya. This was the first instance of a prior restraint order against a class of persons. And it happened at election time. Legal circles were quick to argue that the order was unconstitutional. Beyond that, the idea that a candidate should ask for a gag order against media raised suspicions. Public curiosity led to reports that there were allegations of misconduct against Surya. The end result was that the gag order drew attention to a questionable aspect of Surya's persona as much as to the sidelining of the spirit of democracy by the court.

While Surya wants to stop the world from talking about him, he wants full freedom to say what he pleases. In a public statement a week ago, he said "If you are not with Modi, you are anti-India". Should courts stop the media, and the public, from reacting to such an anti-India statement? Our election rules make it obligatory for candidates to disclose the number of criminal cases if any against them. In such an environment, are not allegations against a candidate a matter of public interest? It is clear that Surya was given a privilege he did not deserve. The "interim order" will come up for review only when the case is taken up for hearing again, which conveniently is on May 27, after the counting of votes will be over. Who is fooling whom?

Surya is BJP's candidate in the Bangalore South constituency which had elected H.N.Ananth Kumar six times in a row. In the first election after Ananth Kumar's untimely death, his wife Tejaswini was a natural choice for the BJP, not merely because she was his widow but because, in her own right she was an activist NGO leader supported by the entire state leadership of the BJP. But the BJP's destiny makers in Delhi picked Surya for reasons only they knew. Local BJP leaders were unhappy and came round only after school master Amit Shah used his cane stick to discipline his boys. Given Surya's unpopularity among local BJP leaders, he would have lost. But the Congress came to his rescue by putting up its most unwinnable candidate Hari Prasad in Bangalore South. The stars are on BJP's side.

That explains, also, why big leaders violate Election Commission rules and the EC takes only naam-ke-wastey actions. Kalyan Singh, the Governor of a state, publicly asks people to vote for BJP. The EC brings it to the notice of the President of India. Adityanath, a chief minister, refers to the Indian Army as "Modiji Ki Sena". Initially only UP's Chief Electoral Officer seeks a report from the District Electoral Officer. The EC sends a notice to Air India for issuing boarding passes with Modi pictures on them. Air India does not even reply and EC "conveys its displeasure" to Air India's chairman. EC "pulls up" the railways for using paper cups with Modi propaganda on them, but the railways take its own time to withdraw the cups.

The game is clear. The BJP uses India's state machinery for party propaganda in ways that have never happened before and ignoring the fact that necessary evils, too, are evil. All that EC does is to go through the motions of action. Those who are asked to explain know that the EC is under the same compulsions as they are. This is an unfamiliar India becoming all too familiar.

In the process, unheard-of things are happening. A TV channel starts broadcasting without getting the permits the law stipulates. NaMo TV is not in the list of channels permitted by the I & B Ministry. Its ownership is unknown. Yet it broadcasts on a government-sponsored channel and is backed by government advertisements. Belatedly the EC asked the I & B ministry for an explanation -- like all the other explanations it asked for in all the other irregularities. We could have found solace in the old saying: This too will pass. Except that we can't be sure, alas.

Monday, March 25, 2019


The Congress and the BJP have one thing in common -- each is led by a Superman. But the BJP's superman has a bunch of subalterns with him. That is a force multiplier. The Congress superman is a solitary sentinel. That is poor war tactics.

Narendra Modi uses his fire power as no one else does. Yet he has Amit Shah making aggressive speeches all over the country, Piyush Goel holding forth even in alien territory like Tamil Nadu, Nitin Gadkari and Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh raising voices that draw attention, Sushma Swaraj and Venkaiah Naidu bringing up the rear. A sizeable bunch to make a sizeable impact.

Turn to the Congress and what we hear is a one-man orchestra. An entrepreneurs' meeting in Bangalore? It's Rahul Gandhi. A public meeting in Itanagar? It's Rahul Gandhi. A mass meeting in Gandhinagar? It's Rahul Gandhi. A popular do in a Chennai women's college? It's Rahul Gandhi. A campaign meeting in Sabalgarh in Madhya Pradesh? It's Rahul Gandhi. In Guwahati, Kanyakumari, Gulbarga, Kochi, wherever the Congress states its case, you see no Congress stalwart other than Rahul Gandhi. The Congress has no other stalwarts?

But it has. There are young and articulate leaders like Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora. There are old war horses like Digvijay Singh and Kamalnath and Oommen Chandy. But we don't see or hear the young and the bright. We hear about the old and the tested only in their unending battles for prominence. At a time when all guns should be blazing at a single target, the Congress is leaving everything to one individual. Is the dynasty thing at work again despite the havoc it has wrought?

Naturally the Congress is too ineffective in too many places. Ask who is the chief of the party in an important state such as Maharashtra and you will hear some people mentioning Sanjay Nirupam, and some others mentioning Ashok Chavan. Nirupam in turn is constantly fighting with Milind Deora, probably because he sees a threat in Deora's popularity cum capability. Not surprisingly the Congress attracts none of the smaller but important group leaders such as Prakash Ambedkar or Raju Shetty.

Delhi is another revealing case. Commonsense demands that the Congress must tie up with other parties that want to check the BJP. In Delhi's case it is the Aam Aadmi Party. Important Congressmen favour a working alliance, but yesterday's leader Sheila Dixit goes by day-before-yesterday's ideas. Result: The BJP gains.

In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh the victory the Congress recently won should have energised the leadership. But what we see is a sense of nothing-is-happening. Would it have been different if the choice of CMs was based not on pressure politics by the old guard but on an assessment of the need of the hour? Rahul Gandhi does not seem to have the power to enforce his will and bring new blood into leadership ranks.

The consequent infighting in the party is nowhere more dismal than in Kerala. To begin with, the Congress in Kerala has several heads -- Oommen Chandy, Mullapally, Ramesh Chennithala, A.K.Antony, V.M.Sudheeran. It is also the only state where the Congress is officially and openly divided into "A" group and "I" group. Fights between A and I are more deadly than Congress-Communist fights. Younger leaders are not allowed to come up. In fact, the younger ranks have such bright and modernistic leaders that if they are allowed to take over the party, both the party and the state are sure to see rapid progress. But such things do not happen in a Me-Myself-And-I culture.

The macabre nature of that culture bared itself last week when veteran leader K.V.Thomas declared war against the party. The ticket he expected was taken away from him and given to Hybi Eden instead. Thomas was 72 and Eden exactly half that age, 36. Besides, Thomas had had a lot of jam; he was MLA for long, MP for long, a minister in Kerala, a minister in Delhi and the holder of several positions inside the party and outside. Still he wouldn't yield to a younger man. The party finally bought peace by offering him more jam without revealing any details.

The BJP has internal fights as well. But the number of top leaders campaigning diligently makes up for it. There is energy and imagination in the BJP's campaign style. There is energy in Rahul Gandhi, but there is no imagination, and he is alone. The chief enemy of the Congress is the Congress.

Monday, March 18, 2019


This is going to be the make or break election. It will either make the idea of India viable, or it will break it completely. The ruling dispensation knows that if they don't win this time, they won't win for a long time. And if they win, they'll make sure they don't lose again. Get ready for the bitterest, most cold-blooded election in the history of our democracy.

Early symptoms of the power play were already on show. In a short span of 30 days the prime minister declared open 157 projects, from an airport in Sikkim to a highway in Kanyakumari. They were all publicised in ways seldom seen in our country before. And most of them were crowned by no-holds-barred election speeches. Even the inauguration of the National War Memorial in Delhi saw the PM attacking the Congress's dynastic leadership. The Election Commission helpfully waited until the ground was prepared by all these shows and speeches.

India's electorate is famously under-literate. Yet the savvy with which the illiterate and semi-literate voters of UP defeated Indira Gandhi after the Emergency is part of legend. Part of a more shameful legend was the way literate Kerala became the only state to vote for her in that historical 1977 election. The question that came up then was: Who is better for democracy -- the literate or the illiterate?

This time the question is more complicated because religion is involved. So is nationalism in its new avatar. The rise of Hindutva has given a new emotional dimension to religion. It helped the BJP create some waves although, like all waves, they dissipated quickly. Dissipation happens because Hindutva activists resort to extreme steps that violate Indian sensibilities. Lynchings and whippings and killings in the name of religion repel more than they attract. The IS is an example. Islam's concept of martyrdom was an attraction for over-enthusiastic youngsters to volunteer for suicide missions. But even in Muslim societies, IS lost the prestige it once had.

There can be healthy arguments over nationalism, like Ravindranath Tagore initiated with his notion that humanism was right and nationalism wrong. But it is something else when an Indian, born and brought up as an Indian, is asked to prove his bonafides as a nationalist. Diversity is the essence of this nation of many languages and diets and dress habits and cultural backgrounds. Unity in diversity is the ideal for such a kaleidoscopic nation. And it proved workable. To discard that in favour of a monolithic culture will be to invite disaster.

The highlight features of the last five years will have to be a guide to voting decisions this time around. Topping all lists of major policy decisions are demonetisation and GST. The passage of time has not helped paper over the disastrous impact of both, especially of demonetisation which wrecked the lives of thousands of ordinary people and small businesses. Many deaths were reported due to exhaustion waiting in queues and to newly experienced poverty that blocked access to food and medicines. The Government blocked all attempts to get relevant statistics about the deaths.

Many autonomous institutions had zealously preserved their independence to ensure checks and balances in governance. One by one these were compromised, none more worrisomely than the Reserve Bank of India. High profile economic advisers like Arvind Subramanyam and Arvind Panagariya resigned as they discovered that the Finance Minister neither needed nor desired advisers. An RBI Governor abruptly resigned over issues relating to autonomy; the Government appointed a bureaucrat in his place.

In short the BJP Government has been focusing on a partisan agenda to transform the basic democratic structure of the Indian polity. Its trump card has been the personality of the prime minister. There is no one in India today to rival his energy, his oratory and his nonstop campaigning style. He also has a capacity to attract sycophancy. Consider this India Today web desk item of May 2017: "The popular leader has completed three years, but the excitement on his being the prime minister has not died down".

That excitement will be kept at high pitch during the voting weeks ahead. Is that the best for us? A kind of answer was given by a 19th century American columnist named Peter Dunne. He wrote: "A man who expects to train lobsters to fly in a year is called a lunatic. But a man who thinks that men can be turned into angels by an election is called a reformer and remains at large".

Beware of reformers.

Monday, March 11, 2019


Pakistan is ruled by its military and the military has an animosity against India that won't go away. The reason is permanently engraved in a photograph -- Gen. A.A.K. Niazi signing papers formalising his country's surrender to India in Dhaka in 1971. The wiping out of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh were twin humiliations that became etched in the Pakistan army's DNA. For this reason, we should not expect meaningful peace with Pakistan in the foreseeable future. Large sections of ordinary Pakistanis have campaigned from time to time for normal relations with India. So have Indians. But normalcy will not come as long as the craving for revenge drives Pakistan's military leadership.

Currently a worldwide awakening against terrorism has weakened Pakistan. European nations raised the issue in the UN. The influential Paris-based Financial Action Task Force included Pakistan in its "grey list", a mark of disapproval. Even China advised Pakistan to distance itself from terrorist groups. This could be why Pakistan hinted that it would not oppose a UN listing Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. Action was necessary, the Foreign Minister said, to protect "our global reputation".

Action was indeed taken -- banning various organisations identified with terrorism and taking 44 men under preventive custody, including Masood Azhar's son and brother both of whom were named in the Indian dossier given to Pakistan. Pakistan's bonafides in these actions are unsure; preventive custody could mean custody to prevent any harm coming to the men. Even so, Pakistan has been forced by international opinion to take measures and make statements it has not done before.

It would be dangerous for India to interpret these developments as signs of peace breaking out in the region. The hatreds that drive organisations like Jaish e Mohammed are too deeprooted to go away in a hurry. Comparable hatreds have unfortunately developed in certain segments of the population in India also in recent years. If we do not accept this, we will have no right to claim moral superiority over Pakistan. Post Pulwama, India's positions have raised several questions. Two of them are especially disturbing.

Question number one: Why did the BJP-- and the Congress-- politicise the military action? The Prime Minister and the president of the ruling party made statements that linked the air strike with the imminent elections. Beyond them, Salman Khurshid of the Congress Party made a fool of himself and his party by claiming credit for Wing Commander Abhinandan's bravery. He said the IAF hero "received his wings in 2004 and matured as a fighter pilot during UPA". How pathetic can a politician get!

From the BJP's side, minister Piyush Goel turned himself into an embodiment of intolerance when a TV anchor politely asked him questions many Indians were asking about the IAF strike at Balakot. Goel was inexplicably agitated, wouldn't listen to the anchor, and went on with his near-abusive onslaught. When the anchor managed to say, "Minister, neither me nor anybody sitting here needs any lesson in patriotism from you", the audience clapped showing the isolation of Goel and his bigotry.

Question number two should worry us more: How will Israelisation of Indian policy help? For years now Israel has been carrying on an intensive military campaign against Palestinians in their homeland. It is the world's most unequal war since Israel is equipped with the latest military devices while the Palestinians have only militant groups left to their own devices. Offences like stone-pelting by Palestinians are met by state-of-the-art missile attacks by Israel. In recent years India's ties with Israel have become closer than its ties with any other country. Is Israel's policy towards Palestinians to be a model for India's policy towards Kashmiris?

Decades of Israeli overkill have failed to ease their Palestine problem. This adds irony to India's newfound admiration for Israel's style of functioning. It was left to Brussels-based researcher Shairee Malhotra to point out that "Israel's biggest fans in India appear to be the 'internet Hindus' who primarily love Israel for how it deals with Palestine and fights Muslims".

The doyen of Middle East specialists, Robert Fisk, wrote: "Israel has been assiduously lining itself up alongside India's nationalist BJP Government in an unspoken -- and politically dangerous -- 'anti-Islamist' coalition, an unofficial, unacknowledged alliance, while India itself has become the largest weapon market for the Israeli arms trade... It is difficult to see how Zionist nationalism will not leach into Hindu nationalism when Israel is supplying so many weapons to India".

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Monday, March 4, 2019


It is good that 12 fighter jets bombarded a terrorist camp in Pakistan with the intention of delivering a blow that would be remembered. More significantly, India crossed the international border for the first time to hit Balakot, the terrorists' nerve centre. The message was heard in other countries as well; many of them asked the Pakistan Government to help eliminate terrorism. The pressure exerted by them also persuaded Pakistan to release the IAF hero who had shot down their F-16 before his own jet was shot down and he was captured.

But this is no occasion for jingoism. Carefully calibrated military operations lose their import when cheap celebrations are mounted for populist approval. The damage done in this area by the shouters of our television channels is a disgrace. Citing the over-patriotic declamations of channel monologists, Pakistan was able to argue that India was a trigger-happy hatemonger. It gave them a brownie point or two when Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured, giving Imran Khan an opportunity to say: "Our action was only intended to convey that we have the capability to hit back".

The outcome of that capability was not known to the Indian public for quite a while. As TV-fed superpatriots enjoyed fire-crackers, Agence France-Presse released a photo showing the wreckage of an IAF jet shot down by Pakistan. The Defence Command of Pakistan released photographs of Wing Commander Abhinandan "arrested alive after successful air combat within Pakistan territory". It was left to retired Indian army colonel turned columnist Ajay Shukla to tweet what happened: "Two MIG-21s were lured by two PAF F-16s into an air def ambush. The F-16s made shallow ingress into Indian air space, dropped bombs and waited for IAF MIGs that scrambled. Then F-16s turned back, MIGs followed, were shot down by air defence guns". A prestige win for Pakistan.

So where do we go from here? The most important thing for any country in a situation like this is to present a united front. The unity has to come from within, clear and unambiguous. This has so far been proving difficult. Twenty-one opposition parties complaining together about the Government not taking them into confidence was not indicative of unity. The Cabinet's strong man Arun Jaitley's attack on the opposition did not help either. Nor did high-profile government functions like the launching of the Khelo India Mobile App and the dialogue between the Prime Minister and BJP Karyavahaks gathered from all over the country. Couldn't these things wait for a day or two?

If we cannot get over narrow political self-interests, perhaps we do not deserve the honour and respect we demand as a nation. The depths to which politicians can sink even at a time like this were shown when Karnataka's BJP leader said that the IAF action against terrorists in Pakistan had resulted in a Modi wave that would help his party win 22 out of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Are our defence personnel facing the enemy and risking their lives to help BJP go to the Lok Sabha? A man who does not understand that the country is bigger than his party ought to be banished from public life for good. When such petty men flourish in our country, it becomes difficult for us to successfully confront an overrated adversary across the border.

If India is to assert itself as an effective modern state, it will have to first stop politicians who hurt its cause. It then must firm up international links that it can depend on. In the current crisis, Saudi Arabia and even China provided sober advice to Pakistan. But to what extent can India depend on them? Saudi Arabia's main ambition is to destroy Iran. For that purpose it has even joined forces with its traditional enemy, Israel. Iran on the other hand is having exactly the same problem with Pakistan on the Baluchistan side as India is having with it on the Jammu-Kashmir side. Incensed by Pakistan terror groups attacking Iranian interests, Teheran's strong man, Gen. Soleimani, warned Pakistan quite bluntly only a couple of weeks ago.

It is a complex scenario. But the handling of it can be simple if we decide to join forces with those whose interests coincide with ours. They are different from those who want to join hands with us to further their interests. So the challenge is double-headed. Can we distinguish between promoting our interests and helping others promote theirs? More importantly, do we have the guts to do what's best for us?